Two law firms are filing more than 30 new child sexual abuse complaints against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany under New York state’s Child Victims Act.
On Wednesday, WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with attorneys Cynthia LaFave and Taylor Stippel.
LaFave: The 33 complaints that are being filed today by the joint efforts of, LaFave, Wein & Frament and Jeff Anderson & Associates, are 33 more complaints against the Diocese of Albany under the New York Child Victims Act. And that is, those are cases that are brought because of sex abuse that happened to minors, at some point past and our clients are people who have been sexually abused by people who were under the auspices of the Diocese at the time that this was happening, many of these are priests.
Levulis: And together your two firms have now brought 107 lawsuits against the Diocese of Albany alleging abuse. Now it's not the only Diocese facing such claims. Just in New York, the Buffalo Diocese, which is being led right now by Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, filed for bankruptcy in February. The Rochester Diocese filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and the Syracuse Diocese filed for bankruptcy in June 2020. Are you at all concerned that the Albany Diocese is next?
LaFave: I think that you need to understand something about the filing of bankruptcy by these Diocese. Number one, Taylor and I, and our law firms have cases that we are bringing in the Syracuse diocese, the Ogdensburg Diocese and the Albany Diocese. But- So that- We are already involved in the Syracuse bankruptcy. But there are some reasons why we believe that the diocese have been filing bankruptcy in these different areas. And those are, number one, we do believe that they are trying to hide assets. Number two, we believe that they don't want to go through the scrutiny of discovery that would occur in the Supreme Court cases. And number three, we think that they are trying to shorten the timeframe under which survivors of sexual abuse can come forward because that date would be set by bankruptcy court. Are we concerned that they're going to file bankruptcy? No, we believe that we will still be able to give voice to these people who have under, under these diocese had such horrendous things happen in their lives, and they are coming forward and they are courageous because of the fact that they believe that they can change the world in the future. And by that I mean specifically the children of today and tomorrow, the people who are bringing these lawsuits do so sometimes at their own- Not- It's very difficult for them and it's their- They have such a hard time doing this, but they have taken on this burden of trying to help the rest of the world. And, so they are courageously doing that. So they will have a voice, whether it's in bankruptcy court or in Supreme Court.
Stippel: I agree with everything you said Cynthia. And want to just emphasize that a lot of survivors when they see that a diocese has filed for bankruptcy might think that they don't have legal rights as to that diocese- That is not the case. When a diocese files for bankruptcy, the proceeding moves over to federal bankruptcy court. But survivors do have legal rights, even if a diocese filed for bankruptcy. They can come forward, they can come forward confidentially, without their name being shared with the public. And they can share their truth in the bankruptcy court. We are still going to be pressing for information in the bankruptcy process. It makes it a lot harder to get, which is why we believe that the filing of bankruptcy is a legal tactic used by the diocese to shelter information and assets. But we're going to be pressing for the answers that survivors need and that they deserve in that process. So should survivors be out there who have gone through something and should they be in a diocese where there is a bankruptcy filing that is not a bar. And that does not mean they don't have legal rights. They do have legal rights.
LaFave: And we continue to pursue cases even after the filing of the bankruptcy and we anticipate that we will take new cases continually against these diocese even when they have filed bankruptcy. And anybody who is out there should be getting to an attorney even if the diocese had declared bankruptcy, because they need to have their voices heard. And they need to be able to stand up and be a part of what is happening, if they can do that.
And given both of your experiences with the other dioceses, do you expect the Albany Diocese to file for bankruptcy?
Stippel: We think there is a significant likelihood that the Diocese of Albany will file for bankruptcy. We don't have any concrete information on that. But we know that it's a tactic again, that many diocese across the state of New York, across the nation, have used to not share information and to shelter assets and to protect themselves. The Diocese of Syracuse I believe, you know, prior to that, I think they're the most recent in New York to file for bankruptcy. Prior to the Diocese of Syracuse filing for bankruptcy, over 25 other diocese or religious orders across the United States have availed themselves of bankruptcy as a legal tactic. So while we don't have any concrete intel we do expect that it's a significant possibility for the Diocese of Albany.
Has the Albany Diocese been open regarding records, files pertaining to any of the complaints that your firms have made?
LaFave: We have been participating in the process, in Supreme Court, of discovery. However, though, we don't have any complaints about what's happening with the attorneys who are representing the diocese, we have not yet received any information from them. There has been a significant slowdown in the ability to process these cases. And by process, I mean us getting information and us giving information, because of the COVID-19 crisis that's occurred. So at this point, we have not received any information from the Albany Diocese that we have asked for. However, I do think there are really very significant reasons why that process has slowed down.
And I'm glad you mentioned that Cynthia, I did want to ask both of you. How have the court shutdowns that have occurred in response to the pandemic, have those impacted the suits filed under the Child Victims Act?
LaFave: You know, there's, there's been a lot of impact. And one of it is that we were not able to file cases for a, a good period of time there. And you should know, and the people who are listening to this should know, that we calculate at this point that the time limit to file remains August 13. Now I know the governor did sign an executive order extending the time limit for filing. However, we do think that there are some concerns about that order. So we are going forward under the belief that at this point, the deadline date is August 13 for the filing. And that means that if somebody out there, at this point wants to be involved and needs to be involved and wants to have a voice, they need to get to an attorney really quickly. There is a bill that has gone through both the assembly and the senate of New York State, and that we understand has reached the governor's desk, but at this point, he has not signed that, and that would extend the time for another year. And we believe that that's something that really should happen because there's so many people whose voices are not yet being heard. And so many people who have not yet been able to come forward, and certainly with COVID it shut everything down for months. But right now, our deadline that we are working with is August 13. And we think that the public needs to know that.
Stippel: The only thing I'll add is that COVID-19 made things particularly hard for survivors, because for many people, this is something that is incredibly difficult to ever share with anybody, let alone a call to an attorney. And so when there is an additional stressor added in, a stressor that might take away their income, or might cause them to be at home where they can't have a private conversation. It's made it incredibly difficult, even more difficult than it already is to come forward and share the deepest, darkest secret that they've ever held. And so, we think that there's a lot of people in New York, a lot of survivors who have not had the chance to come forward because of COVID-19 and what it has done to their lives, both personally, sometimes professionally. And we hope that the governor signs the bill and that this is extended for another year. But we also know we can't count on that. So we really think that survivors who might be out there, there never should be a time limit. They never should have a time when they have to come forward. But unfortunately right now, that deadline is still August 13. Less than a month from now. And the time to come forward is now.
In a statement Wednesday, the Albany Diocese says it takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously and said it had not yet been served in any of the 33 new complaints. Once that happens, the Diocese says it will review the allegations and take whatever actions necessary to inform and safeguard the public. The Diocese did not answer a question about whether it is considering filing for bankruptcy.